Taking a picture of someone is, as David Levi Strauss writes in Between the Eyes, an act of negotiation. As such, photography, and in particular social documentary photography, is never far from the political realm. From John Thomson’s depictions of the working poor in Street Life in London (1877) to Dorethea Lange’s iconic image of the Great Depression, Migrant Mother (1936), social documentary photographers encourage us not only to look at the world but also to see how it could be better. Even today, when social documentarians lack the support of mass circulation photo magazines that were once the mainstay of their profession, photographers such as Sebastião Salgado have the power to shape our understanding of globalisation and its harsh consequences for some. Part of this tradition too is Birkbeck’s own Carlos Reyes-Manzo, whose photographs of famine in Ethiopia, Christian communities in Iraq and poverty in London is united by a common concern for human rights.
Viewed through a political science lens, social documentary photographers can, in many cases, be thought of as specialist members of national and transnational advocacy networks committed to social justice. These networks are not always effective. Nor are relations between network members always straightforward. Yet social documentary photographers, working as part of these groups, do occasionally change the world. A case in point is the consciousness-raising role played by Matt Herron and other members of the Southern Documentary Project in the US civil rights movement in the 1960s. Whether they are effective or not, social documentary photographers face criticisms for being seen to represent those whose pictures they take. Many members of the Southern Documentary Project were white out-of-towners, which became a source of tension for some local black activists. Sebastiao Salgado, meanwhile, has been criticised for finding beauty in images of suffering through his fine-art approach to social documentary photography.
Criticisms of this kind are familiar territory for political scientists, who have long debated the reasons why individuals join advocacy networks and who activists can legitimately claim to represent. What is noticeable by its absence from contemporary discussions of photography is a concern for what role pictures of the public policy process have to play in our understanding of politics. Although there are no shortage of such images in circulation, they are rarely treated with the same seriousness as photographs of nameless individuals at the mercy of unseen political forces. So it should be, some might argue, but dismissing photographs of public policy as mere propaganda is an opportunity missed to learn more about the all-important question of who governs.
One reason for this lack of interest, perhaps, is that official photographs of politicians at work have become so formulaic. In the 1960s, Jacques Lowe and George Tames broke new ground with their photographs of John F. Kennedy at work in the White House. Lowe’s image of Kennedy’s reaction to the death of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba stands out in this regard for its insights into the fraught world of foreign policy-making. George Tames’ photograph of Kennedy alone and leaning over a desk in the Oval Office, meanwhile, has become visual shorthand for the physical and psychological pressures of high office, as reflected in its title The Loneliest Job. Telephone conversations are a recurring motif in photographs of JFK and they have helped to forge his reputation as a skilled political operator. So much so, in fact, that it is now standard operating procedure during international crises for governments to publish photographs of Prime Ministers and Presidents calling other world leaders. If the message of such photographs is that events are in hand then the myth is that policy is made by, and between, heads of state or government with little need for advisors, experts and, it would seem, operational decisions. That this myth is wearing thin is suggested by the derision that greeted David Cameron’s selfie of his stern-faced conversation with Barack Obama over Ukraine in March 2014.
The power imbalance between “official” photographers and politicians may compromise the autonomy of the former. Yet even officially sanctioned images can, on occasion, tell us interesting things about how policy is made. A recent example is The Situation Room, a photograph by White House photographer Pete Souza, which shows Barack Obama and key advisors monitoring the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in May 2011. The sheer number of people in the room, and the institutions they represent, speak to long-standing concerns about fragmentation in US foreign policy. Most of those gathered around the table are well known but the presence of a relatively junior intelligence official and a partial glimpse of an unnamed CIA operative shed more light on security policy-making in the US than the Obama Administration had perhaps intended.
Guardian photographer Martin Argles’ award winning photographs of Gordon Brown’s final hours as Prime Minister in May 2010 offer a more fascinating insight still into the practice of politics . As with The Situation Room, Argles breaks from the traditional image of the policy-maker as a unitary rational actor by showing Downing Street’s war-room strewn with advisors. These photos show the human side of policy-making in stark relief; the advisors are exhausted after a tough election campaign and chaotic coalition talks; there are looks of tears, laughter and boredom; there is camaraderie between old political enemies or, at any rate, the appearance thereof. The one photographic cliché in this series is Brown’s JFK-style solitary phone call with Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg but it is brilliantly juxtaposed with a second image of advisors listening into the call. The most moving image of all sees Brown with his wife, Sarah, and sons in the moments before they leave Downing Street; he the proud father looking to the future and she the concerned spouse showing the strain of her husband’s political downfall.
Souza and Argles show political leaders at historic moments but photographers can teach us too about the more mundane elements of public policy. A case in point is Melanie Friend’s Border Country, a series of photos of UK Immigration Removal Centres accompanied by interviews with asylum seekers and migrants. The photographs show no people and instead focus on locations in which migrants without legal right to remain in the UK are detained before being removed from the country. Together these images give a sense of the vast bureaucratic apparatus required to run UK migration policy and the consequences for those that find themselves on the wrong side of Britain’s borders. By leaving people out of her photographs, Friend provides a radical response to those who criticise the cult of victimhood in social documentary photography. In so doing, she shows what political scientists have long since come to accept but often struggle to articulate: institutions matter.
Students of politics and photography, in short, have much to learn from each other. Social documentary photographers have a strong sense of the political but it is a narrow one that focuses disproportionately on how individuals are affected by policy outputs, whether it be conflict, famine or poverty. Such images are important but so too is making visible, wherever possible, the political forces that lead to such tragic outcomes. Political scientists, in turn, should delve deeper into what photographs can teach us about politics in practice. Although politics lecturers are not slow to show photographs in the classroom, analysis of the written and spoken word still dominate political research. There has never been a better time for students of politics and photography to begin this conversation. Professional social documentary photographers may face tighter financial constraints than ever before but the ubiquity of cameras and the vast reach of such images via the internet mean that politics is in the public eye as never before.
Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck. He will be joined by Carlos Reyes-Manzo, Melanie Friend and Martin Argles on 16 June to talk about the relationship between politics and photography as part of Birkbeck’s Social Sciences Week. Please see here for more details.